France’s Loire Valley is one of the most diverse wine producing regions in the country with red varietal appellations that can offer anything from cabernet franc to pinot noir, or potentially even malbec, cabernet sauvignon, and gamay. Its world famous white wines, like Sancerre or Vouvray, are famous for sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc, while lesser-known regions like Muscadet make clean and simple wines from a grape called melon de bourgogne. The first wines that ever really spoke to me beyond an instinctual desire for intoxication were the white wines of the Loire. Back before I ever had aspirations of working in the industry, I had purchased an encyclopedic book and read that many of the Sancerre grapes were grown in heavy limestone soils, which actually translated into a mineral, stony flavor in the wine itself. It wasn’t a bunch of baloney, either. Even as a novice I could clearly taste the reality of that phenomenon we call terroir—the idea that a specific place can translate the essence of that environment into the wine itself.
The town of Saumur runs right along the bank of the Loire River and many of the vineyards sit along an elevated area looking down on to the water. There’s a giant amount of diversity, range, styles, and flavors in the Loire—too much to possibly comprehend in the span of an afternoon. But an afternoon is what I had in the Loire Valley this week, so I decided to spend it in the Saumur-Champigny region, an area known for its peppery, yet juicy cabernet franc reds and racy chenin blanc whites.
My friend Charles and I were headed over to Chateau du Hureau, an estate located along the river run by a man named Phillippe Vatan, who was preparing a small lunch in anticipation of our arrival. Charles works as an importer for his wines in the U.S., so our goal was to taste a few of the new vintages while getting a sense of how they paired with food. Phillippe's place was stacked with plenty of bread, rabbit terrine, and plates of rillons—a regional speciality made from pork ribs, traditionally eaten by local hunters as a breakfast before the day’s events.
Loire Valley cabernet franc is slowly creeping its way into the mainstream of popular wine culture. With low alcohol levels around 12%, a fresh and snappy core of dark red fruit, and tannic structure that can range from light to heavy, the wine is gradually becoming more recognized by sommeliers as a versatile option for a number of different cuisines. You can also serve it cold and enjoy the refreshing acidity as you munch on various meats, cheeses, and snack options. We drank it right out of the tank and kept sneaking back into the cellar for refills. It was perfect with the cured snacks we were munching on.
Phillippe’s chenin blanc whites were also quite stunning. His vineyards run along the edge of the cliff into which the facility at Chateau du Hureau is built and meander back into the country side away from the water. With heavy clay and limestone soils, the wines pop with a remarkable acidity that leaves you thirsty for more. Phillippe suggested a local goat cheese as a pairing and we gorged on it like a couple of goats ourselves.
After lunch we took a walk through the cellar, tasted a few older vintages, and talked about the modern perception of “good” and “bad” vintages among consumers Perhaps the best wine we tasted during our visit was a 2013 cabernet franc from a harvest not considered great among critics. “We had a lot of rain and it was difficult,” Phillippe told us, “but we did our best and I think we put together a very nice wine.” I thought the wine was much better than “nice”. It was simple, yet robust; concentrated with tart berry flavor and a hint of black pepper. At 12% I could probably drink the entire bottle and still get all my work done for the evening! It took all my will power not to go back for seconds, thirds, and fourths
“There’s always value to be found in the difficult vintages,” Phillippe went on to say. “My family has been growing grapes for 300 years. We know how to make wine and that doesn’t change with the weather.”